Last Stop

laststop1I don’t write about video games here too often, but I feel I must regards this game which I just played to completion- something I find myself managing all too rarely now. There is a tendency for video games to be sandbox experiences these days, without any real endgame one could mention, so an adventure game like Last Stop, which has a single-player narrative with a beginning, middle and end is rather unusual lately (perhaps quaintly old-fashioned to some). Its a third-person adventure game where players take control of one of three characters, deciding via multiple-choice options what they say and performing minigame sections.  I found the game really interesting, with well-written characters, excellent voice-acting (the best since Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, in my mind) and a really wonderful, evocative score from Lyndon Holland that takes it to some other level. The art style refreshingly does not take an overly realistic approach- the character models and settings have a colourful feel not unlike 1960s television, or perhaps an animated movie.

Set in modern-day London with supernatural undertones, Last Stop is an anthology drama: its actually three seperate stories, each with six chapters, involving seperate characters whose adventures slowly bring them together for the finale. Paper Dolls is the best of the three, a Twilight Zone-type story in which a messy encounter in a Tube station results in two neighbours, middle-aged single-dad John and the young, always-distracted Jack waking up to find they have swapped bodies. The premise may seem daft but the character arcs are so well written, and their connections so endearing, that it was a joy just to play through the chapters and discover what would happen next: episodes of their misadventures, such as when both have to go to work pretending to be the other with ensuing fish-out-water comedy moments are really funny. As usual in the best-written dramas, having gained our emotional connection the humour turns dramatic when things go wrong and young Jack, trapped in John’s middle-aged body with a failing heart, becomes ill. 

Of the other two storylines, Stranger Danger is a more obvious supernatural tale about teenage Donna’s fascination with a tall handsome stranger with a penchant for glowing green eyes and suspiciously disappearing the people he takes to his house, is also quite good. There were some subtle writing choices here, and I enjoyed the initial disorientation I felt when I noticed that once someone was disappeared, oddly nobody in the game seemed to notice: it wasn’t that they were suddenly gone, it was like they were never there and totally forgotten. Quite unnerving. The third storyline, Domestic Affairs, is the lesser of the three, although it has to be said it was a brave choice for its main character, an unfaithful wife caught up in an office promotion rivalry, to be such a decidedly unlikeable playable character. It was quite polarising compared to how much I was rooting for the two guys in the Paper Dolls story.  

laststop2After finishing the game I turned to reviews to learn more about it and sadly it transpires that a lot of the choices I was making possibly didn’t effect the plot as much as I had assumed. The adventure is fairly linear, more so than I has thought when playing it, more the illusion of choice than genuine choice- not the ‘future of interactive entertainment’ that Edge Magazine was promising back in the 1990s, anyway. I think I can forgive some of that as the overall narratives were so involving and entertaining: maybe limiting how much the player interaction actually impacted outcomes was a trade-off to ensure the arcs flowed so well (it must certainly be a tricky balancing-act in game design). I haven’t enjoyed a videogame quite as much as this since, well, possibly What Remains of Edith Finch, which was another really involving single-player adventure. 

In a nod to modern television trends (making me wonder if developer Variable State have a few frustrated wannabe tv producers on its roster) Last Stop actually ends with a bit of a tease/cliffhanger, suggesting that its characters may yet return in a Last Stop 2– I’d certainly be open to that. Meanwhile, I’m going to play that last chapter again, see if I can’t alter how John and Jack’s storyline ends after all- my playthrough ended with a rather downbeat conclusion that felt at odds with my in-game choices. Disturbingly, all I’m thinking now is regards the illusion of freewill and choice in real-life: perhaps not the intention of Last Stop‘s programmers and developers, but hey-ho. If I can get the game outcome to change, maybe there’s hope for us in the Real World too…

Last Stop has just been released on Xbox Game Pass and is well worth a punt if you’re a subscriber.

Turing Test, Talos Principle and Ben

subnautica1I’m gravitating towards more solitary, slightly cerebral videogames of late- the thought of multiplayer is just horrible, I play videogames to get away from people and the world, I don’t need to get stressed playing shoot em-ups getting mugged by eight year olds, thankyou. So I’ve spent far too much time than is possibly healthy probing the underwater depths of an aquatic alien world in Subnautica, which is a survival-adventure game, something I’m pretty new to (nearest previous title was No Man’s Sky I think, and the survival part of that game wasn’t really its core).  Subnautica is beautiful and fascinating and really hooked me in. Parts of it are like James Cameron’s The Abyss, and I love that movie, so it’s irresistible being drawn into it, being a part of it and having to use my wits to figure out its mysteries and manage to survive. I don’t know how far I’ve progressed into it, but there’s definitely more depths to discover (literally, so), but I’ve put it on hiatus for now.

turing1So  I’ve been playing The Turing Test, recently placed on the Gamepass library. Now this is brilliant, one of those first-person puzzlers where in this case you explore a series of rooms on a research facility on Europa (yep, Jupiter’s moon), figuring out each puzzle that unlocks access to the next room, slowly delving deeper into the abandoned base. As you do so, hints and clues are gradually revealed of the stations original crew, an unfolding narrative that so far (I’m about two chapters in) I’ve really enjoyed. Its another mystery, akin to that of What Remains of Edith Finch, your game progress unfolding a meta-narrative. As you play you are observed by an AI, brilliantly voiced by James Faulkner (unmistakable and a really great performance) who comments on your actions and the state of the base- clearly the rooms are a test, a Turing Test, infact, to distinguish between human and machine, and it’s fairly obvious that you are being manipulated by the AI and that it (Tom) knows more about the fate of the original crew than it is telling.

The tests so far aren’t particularly grueling and are quite refreshingly intuitive, slowly becoming more complex and adding complications as they go. I’m really enjoying the sense of place and mood, though. Its fairly routine in design but it feels real, a place to feel and adjust to. Clearly there’s a mystery to solve and no doubt there are inevitable twists, but I am enjoying the gradually unfolding narrative. I’m one of those people who like to just look around the virtual space, soak it up, read any old crew logs that are abandoned and reveal tantalising back-story and clues to what Tom may be up to.  I think there are about 70 rooms in all and I’m not half-way yet- I certainly hope the puzzles don’t become too challenging. Its a tricky thing, the developers raising the stakes/complexity but still encouraging the player to work harder and avoiding the player hitting a difficulty wall he/she can’t get beyond. Here’s hoping I manage to get to the end and figure out what’s  really been going on. Engrossing stuff though, and like so many examples of this kind of thoughtful game, a really good, atmospheric soundtrack (in this case courtesy of Sam Houghton).

talos1.jpgIt reminds me of The Talos Principle, which I played on PS4 a few years ago. That was a brilliant, brilliant game- another first-person puzzler with a really fascinating backstory. But I never finished it. I was deeply into it back when our dog Ben was really ill, and was playing it off and on during those last few weeks before he died. Unfortunately the game, its graphics, sound effects and music are just so tightly wrapped up in my feelings and memories of that traumatic period, well, I really can’t ever go near it again. I remember Ben on my lap as I played it, and I’d be talking to him as I tried to figure out the games quite ingenious (and increasingly tricky) puzzles. Of course I knew he was ill but didn’t really know how ill- well, I guess I did but we tend to fool ourselves with hope, don’t we?

Funny how music, film, or in this case videogames (which in a audiovisual sense can be an intense combination of both) can be such an arresting link to particular moments, good and bad- they can represent great joy but also such terrible pain.  I suppose it’s a pity that I’ll never feel able to go back and finish that Talos Principle. Its too much like a Time Machine that only ever goes back to that one time.

24th June, almost three years ago. The day we lost Ben was the day the Brexit result was announced. Its like we stepped out from one sane world and into a crazier one, in which our dog was gone, our country split in two and politics slid even further into farce. I suppose it’s a little like moving from one level of a videogame to the next, only I can’t find the exit to this one.

 

What Remains of Edith Finch

edith3I don’t write about video games here very often. Which is a little strange, considering I’ve played them since Space Invaders on the Atari VCS back in 1979 and have owned most of the consoles that came out since, over the years. But anyway, I suppose this means that a game has to be something really special to warrant a comment here.

So What Remains of Edith Finch– what a lovely game. Maybe ‘game’ is the wrong description- this was more of an experience. I think this genre of game is called a ‘walking simulator’, and basically consists of the player, through a first-person perspective, exploring a richly detailed creation, usually uncovering some kind of mystery or larger narrative by just looking around and, well, your natural curiosity tells the story. The genius of these games is how subtle they can be, and how the player doesn’t feel ‘forced’ to follow any direct path. At its best, any progression should feel natural and honest, and it can be surprising how intense the experience can be.

Intense is how I would describe my favourite game on the PS4 –  Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, another ‘walking simulator’ and a spooky and mesmerising work of real beauty. Genuinely a piece of art rather than ‘just’ a game, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging and really transformative experience as I explored a 1980s English village at the end of the world. It was so affecting that I can still recall moments in it as powerful as anything in a recent movie. Well, What Remains of Edith Finch is right up there with Rapture in quality, possibly aided, ironically, by it being a much shorter experience. I think a playthrough of this would take between two and three hours- which might seem a bit short, but the quality really makes up for it. This is a fantasy that can haunt your dreams and linger in your daylight fancies.

edith2.jpgWhat Remains of Edith Finch is a story about stories, of memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Its mostly a story about loss and grief, fairly heavyweight topics for a game, but quite enthralling here in an exploration of the past, of a family history, and what may be a curse. Through the games magical setting (unwrapping each memory/story room by room while exploring the Finch family home, deserted out on a misty, lushly forested island) the player experiences, through gameplay, the memories of each departed member of the family, slowly building a map of the Finch family tree and one final ‘twist’.

I would love to describe some of the pleasures and surprises of this game and its stories, and at this point with the game having been out for a few years I’m hardly in spoiler territory but really, I can’t do it. I just don’t want to risk spoiling anything of this beautiful experience- it looks utterly gorgeous and is blessed with a lovely soundtrack from Jeff Russo (who scored the Fargo tv series, as well as Altered Carbon) that complements those images. As I’ve gotten older and somewhat weary of the huge 100+ hour epic experiences and noisy violent gunfights of modern gaming, I’ve really leaned towards these more thoughtful games. You can lose yourself in them and realise part of the joy of videogames of old- back when they were new and we didn’t know what they could be, these are experiences to treasure and remember.

edith4.pngWhat Remains of Edith Finch has just recently been added to the Xbox Gamepass service, so is free to play for subscribers.  

 

Assassins Creed (2017)

ass.jpgEver since this film was announced I’ve been curious to see it. I was a huge fan of the first Assassins Creed videogame, it felt like a breath of fresh air and something genuinely new. Sure, some of the story was daft in a ‘Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code’ kind of way, but it was a gaming experience that clearly lended itself to a cinematic treatment. Cast news etc during the making of the film seemed impressive and the intent was evident to make the proverbial ‘first good videogame movie.’

When the film came out, it quickly became apparent something was wrong and I chose not to go to the cinema to watch it, and even when it came out on disc I steered a wide berth, when in years past it likely would have been a blind purchase- but my curiosity remained. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, and the reviews and word of mouth seem pretty much right.

It is curious that the wife of Assassins Creed‘s Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, herself featured in a movie based on a videogame (the Tomb Raider reboot) and it largely suffered from the same problem that Assassins Creed does – it was just too faithful. There are both sincere and well-made but treat the source material with simply too much respect, becoming stilted and marred by too many action set-pieces intended to evoke moments of the videogame originals. Both films needed a life of their own, I think.

In Assassins Creed‘s case, the inherent daftness of the central premise is only accentuated by the film taking it all too seriously and elevating far too highly. This isn’t Shakespeare, and it isn’t even Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I’m not suggesting being irreverent either, or even being a little camp, but it just seems to me that an adjust was needed. Right from the start and the opening text (that is largely I suspect for non-videogame familiar viewers) the tone is wrong: For centuries, the order of the Knights Templar have searched for the mythical Apple of Eden. They believe it contains not only the seeds of man’s first disobedience, but the key to the free will itself. If they find the relic and decode its secrets, they will have the power to control all freedom of thought. Only the brotherhood called the Assassins stands in their way… 

Maybe I’ve watched too many conspiracy films/tv shows and too many sagas with secret societies and well, maybe too many Dan Brown books/movies. Its all very pompous and apocalyptic and self-important. Better, I think, to have just introduced our protagonist to the mystery gradually, and the audience with him. Maybe eased off with the two warring factions of Templars and Assassins- the central premise of the story, that history can be re-experienced through genetic memory, is conceit enough for a film, I think. You can ‘buy into’ a lot of that other stuff fine in a videogame, in just the same way as you can all the mythology in comicbooks, say, but once you start translating all of that into movies, well, you’re risking all sorts of trouble. It becomes too larger than life, I think.

Which is a curious thing to consider- maybe it’s blowing things up onto a movie screen, with real actors and a music soundtrack and visual effects, all of that, maybe that’s artifice enough, that even subconsciously as a viewer there’s sometimes just too much suspension of disbelief involved with all the videogame paraphernalia on top of everything. Indeed it is the same problem comicbook movies have, managing to accept bizarre realities with people dressing up in weird costumes and defying all the laws of physics with their superpowers- its okay in a comic but in a movie it can all look a bit… weird, daft.

In any event, this film is structured strangely anyhow, with a strange quest (trace the fabled Apple of Eden) with indistinct reason (Templars defeat Assassins, ensure peace through the end of Freewill, whatever it actually means) and uncovering the strange lineage of our convict hero with Daddy issues. Its just a messy story awkwardly told, unless I was paying insufficient attention.  I suppose you just have to go along with all the nonsense, particularly when our baddie finally gets the famed Apple and, rather than use it to ensure World Peace etc, he waits for the annual Templar Convention in London to do it because he’s a sucker for a showstopper and the applause of his superiors. I mean, you’ve got the answer to Everything and the vindication of centuries of struggle and sacrifice and you just… don’t use it? I know it would have been the end of the movie, but, you know, why script it like that and leave it hanging like a big plot hole just sitting there bugging me for the rest of the movie.

Not that there was a lot of movie left after the bad guys attend their annual bad guy conference: most damning of all, the film fizzles to a halt, just stopping as if we are missing another twenty minutes and a ‘proper’ ending. Are we supposed to be left on the edge of our seats waiting for another installment? Well, that may be the cause, because there was evidently a franchise in mind with this film, a familiar blight of films now. You can’t just tell one, self-contained story anymore with a beginning, middle and end, no, it’s all a serial now, just more the pity when poor box-office cuts such prospects adrift.

So Assassins Creed was quite frustrating. A great cast, and some really nice action sequences and art direction, competently done generally, but undermined by a stodgy script laden with self-importance and lapses of logic. I also think the direction (or maybe it was the editing) was lacking at times, in simply telling the story. Its one thing to maintain a mystery, another to leave the audience lost not understanding what’s going on or why. Mind, it all seemed to make sense in the videogame.

But videogames aren’t movies, and movies aren’t videogames…

Ready Player One (2018)

The problem with Ready Player One is that it is, essentially, four different stories, and the film-makers concentrated on the wrong one.

rp1aStory one: Its 2045, and its a dystopian world of economic collapse and (presumably) environmental disaster. People seem to be mostly poor and living in over-crowded shanty-towns, and unemployed. Everyone -and I mean, seemingly everyone– seems to spend their waking hours in a virtual world called The Oasis. Reality is so desperately depressing that escape is everything, even if its only virtual. But that, pretty much, is all we know about 2045. We don’t know any details of the social-political climate, who’s in charge, who’s paying the bills. The company behind The Oasis is the richest on the planet, worth trillions, but its not clear how it makes any money, because The Oasis seems to be free. The film doesn’t not examine why everyone feels the need to escape into a virtual world or how that might mirror our own current preoccupation with our ‘escapes’ be it films or television or video games. We see nothing of any counter-culture that might perceive The Oasis as a threat or blight on society and the world, or if humanity escaping to this virtual haven means it has given up on reality and we are all doomed. The Oasis is there, and everybody’s playing it- that is the world of 2045.

rp1bStory two-  genius recluse James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in the mid 2020’s creates a virtual world, The Oasis, that in a bleak and downward-spiraling world becomes a bright haven for a desperate humanity. Halliday was a solitary child who grew up a secluded life in the 1980s and whose only comfort was predominantly the 80’s pop-culture of that decade, and so The Oasis is dominated by that culture. Somehow this obsession seduces everyone who experiences The Oasis. It becomes a 1980s Heaven.

READY PLAYER ONEBut Halliday, although the richest man on Earth at this point, is deeply unhappy, sinking into morose regret for what he considers is his biggest mistake- not having the courage to have a relationship with the one love of his life- KIra, who ended up marrying his one-time business colleague, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). His obsession in creating a virtual world seems to have stopped him from living properly in the real world, and he only realizes in his old age that reality is better than virtuality. Perhaps it finally dawns on him that his invention overtaking the world is detrimental, humanity obsessed by his virtual world and not dealing with reality’s problems. But instead of shutting down The Oasis or sharing his wisdom, he instead creates a magic virtual quest to find an Easter Egg hidden within The Oasis, involving three magic keys and clues and riddles that er, might do something like making someone fabulously rich. The he dies.

rp1d.pngStory three- Nolan Sorrento during the mid-2020s works as a lab/office assistant to Halliday and Morrow at Gregarious Games, the company that makes The Oasis. A lowly assistant who fetches the coffee, somehow this downtrodden rat becomes the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second biggest company in the world and rival to Gregarious Games, as if his whole life has been one hellbent on revenge over his old bosses who didn’t care for his coffee. Seriously, his rise through the ranks to lead a rival company sounds a better story than anything else in Ready Player One. I want to see how he did it, because he’s patently a jerk and an idiot, but at least it’d be interesting to see the snake on his corporate climb and see the trail of misery in his wake.

rp1eStory four- uber-geek dead-end orphan Wade Watts spends all his time in The Oasis, his virtual alter-ego Parzifal trying to decipher the clues/riddles that will lead to the keys to Halliday’s fabled Easter Egg. He befriends Art3mis, a beautiful girl-avatar who fortunately is also a  girl in the real-world (and hey, incredibly pretty too although she doesn’t think so and she secretly seeks self-validation and the love of a good guy so you can guess where that goes) but she is also cool at videogames etc and together with his own group of teenage virtual super-heroes they go on a great adventure in The Oasis and try to thwart the attempts of IOI to secure the Egg and control of The Oasis for its own nefarious corporate ends. BIt like Harry Potter for videogame geeks.

So they went with story four and shoved the rest into dull exposition/skimpy background details. Maybe they went with the right choice. It looks pretty.

The thing is, all the attention seems to be on The Oasis and its spectacular CGI effects and all the nods to pop-culture references (there’s Robocop! look there’s Valley Forge from Silent Running! Look there’s a pod from 2001 hiding in the background! He’s driving a goddam Delorean! etc etc) and its really very boring surprisingly quickly. And as you might expect, its so full of crazy shit being thrown on-screen its hard most of the time to tell whats going on. I was surprised because I thought Spielberg would have demonstrated more control and keyed things back, but he seems too enamored of his CGI toys that he gets quite carried away. Bit like how Pete Jackson lost his shit on The Hobbit films.

Meanwhile in the real world there’s possibly a more interesting story or stories to tell but this isn’t that movie. This is Tron x100 (even though, ironically,I can’t recall an actual Tron reference, funnily enough) full of cartoony extravaganzas that made me yearn, funnily enough, for the Matrix films.

So its not a bad film. Its just pretty dumb. But I guess its just that kind of dumb spectacular blockbuster entertainment with one-dimensional characters and simple plot-lines and a comfortably-predictable story. But this is Spielberg. He made Minority Report, Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark– as far as pop-culture/ sci-fi/fantasy movies he’s much better than this. Maybe I should cut this film some slack instead of it bugging me for what it isn’t.

But deep down, I wish Joe Dante had made this movie. My God it would have been bloody incredible, I’m sure. Crazy, irreverent, clever. Everything that this film really isn’t, unfortunately.

(But it looks nice).

Valentines Day Nazi Massacre

se4Sniper Elite 4 is out today- most couples will be out on romantic dates tonight so it seems rather incongruous that I’ll be having a fine time shooting nazi scum instead. The Sniper Elite series with its x-ray cam death-shots with exploding tesicles and shattered eye-sockets is the very definition of gamings guilty pleasures- its nothing like real war, or a quality triple-A game; it’s more like an exploitation  video nasty from the ‘eighties, a Grindhouse video game, and nothing wrong with that.

Well, ok, there won’t be much time on the Playstation this evening to be honest, but the bizarre choice to release a game like this on Valentines Day of all days had me thinking. So here’s a list of Valentine’s Day movies. There may be a few titles that aren’t really movies at all. Can you spot them, or perhaps suggest some of your own?

Shirley Valentine

My Bloody Valentine

The Caveman’s Valentine

My Fat Valentine

Private Valentine: Blonde & Dangerous

Blue Valentine

Vampire Valentina

I Hate Valentines Day

Kiss Of The Valentine

The St.Valentine’s Day Massacre

Valentine of Terror

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Maid Valentine

The Valentine’s Night Horror

Surrogate Valentine

Lost Valentine

My Funny Valentine

Blind Valentine

The Valentine Lovers

 

Searching for Paradise in No Mans Sky

No Man's Sky_20160903175549

So I’m searching for Paradise, the Perfect World. I haven’t found it yet.

No Man’s Sky has received much criticism since its release. Certainly some of it seems deserved but I myself have thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. As someone who grew up in the early ‘eighties playing the original Elite, enthralled by its wire-frame graphics, No Mans Sky is the fantastic realisation of the impossible game I dreamed of one day playing. Young gamers today seem to expect more- more focused gameplay, more goals, more complexity; as if they need being told what to do, where to go. Just travelling around enjoying the view isn’t enough for them. They need a purpose.

 

No Man's Sky_20160818191542

Sometimes the journey is the thing. Or the incredible alien skyline that just has me caught trance-like for minutes at a time, leaving me cautious of moving on. Its daft- it’s a computer fantasy, a videogame fabrication, but sometimes I just stop and take in the view. Sometimes I’ve been ‘walking’ on an alien world, just wandering around and enjoying the vistas and the sounds and I’ve been reluctant to leave. As if it were a real place.

Mostly this because you can never really ever go back to it. When you leave a world behind you, you can’t really go back (or at least, it would be incredibly hard to find it again). Impossible alien worlds, procedurally generated in such a way that, while some may seem similar, all are really quite unique. Maybe nobody else in the world playing NMS has seen the things I have,  and the sights once left behind are lost forever. So I save screen-captures like these here, like postcards of my fantastic journey.And then I move on. There’s always another world, another incredible sky.

No Man's Sky_20160902232012

So yeah, these are some of my postcards from my journey. Postcards from The Future. From cosmic realms in reality forbidden me by where I am, and the epoch I am living in. Maybe one day humans will be able to explore the deepest reaches of space and see the sights that I can only dream of. This is the nearest I will ever get, other than watching some Hollywood space epic. Of course NMS is inspired by the sci-fi art of 1950s/1970s sci-fi paperback covers, its images full of impossibly saturated colours and fanciful alien creatures and spaceships and outposts. Things I dreamed of when I was a kid. The real thing won’t look like this stuff, but it’s no less valid for that.

 

No Man's Sky_20160818222102

As for all those  frustrated gamers who have dropped this game like a stone.  Well, it’s clearly not the game they were hoping for (or hyped up to be). Whats wrong with just exploring, just enjoying the view? Imagine if someone did this kind of game set in the Star Wars universe, just so you could fly around and ‘look’ at Bespin, Yavin etc. Just explore around, not having to do anything (I did that with the Nostromo bonus pack in the Alien: Isolation game; I just walked around those rooms and corridors, swept up in the feeling of being ‘inside’ that virtual space so familiar from the film).

I guess many gamers would argue that wouldn’t be a ‘game’ at all, without having anything to do. I suppose they are right but to me just looking is the doing, just seeing something new. Of course some worlds are more interesting and visually rewarding than others. Its surprising how even the most strange vision could be mundane compared to others.

No Man's Sky_20160903105505.jpgSo I expect I’m one of the few who are playing the game just for the experience of it (if you are to believe the internet, I’m one of the few actually still playing it at all, if the stats are to be believed). I’m not racing to the galactic core or grinding for cash to buy a bigger spaceship. I’m just travelling around, looking for the Perfect World. I don’t know what it will look like, but I think I will know it when I’ve found it. It may not be the end of my journey, but it will be so visually arresting that I may well spend a few days or weeks just walking around it, or flying around it.

No Man's Sky_20160812220613

So I’m searching for Paradise, the Perfect World. I haven’t found it yet.Maybe I never will. But it’s fun looking. And if I do find it, well, it’ll be posted here.

No Man's Sky_20160818101248

Ender’s Game (2013)

end12016.33: Enders Game (Network Airing, HD)

Youngsters playing videogames save humanity from Alien menace.

Well, thats essentially it. The youngsters think they are playing a videogame simulating an attack on alien planet, when its actually really happening. They win the game, annihilating the aliens, only to find out -gosh!- that gigantic space armada in the game was the real thing obeying their instructions. Yes, whenever they lost ships hundreds of real people got killed but, hey, they won the game! Earth is saved!

This film really is that stupid. I mean, you have the fate of humanity at stake. You have a vast armada of huge battleships and attack fighters, thousands of military personnel. And you have an orbiting school for ‘gifted’ teens to find a kid to put in charge of the bloody lot. I don’t mean ‘gifted’ as per special powers such as the mutants of X-Men or super-intellects. I mean a bunch of teens who maybe passed their GCSEs a bit early. It’s utterly insane.

Incredulous, I watched this film convinced there would be a twist (other than that final painful one- literally game over, kid, you won the war-that left a huge WTF expression on my face that lingered for hours) but there isn’t one. Unless, well, I guess I could mention the painful coda/twist that suggests that, even though they attacked Earth fifty years ago, the aliens might not have been quite so evil after all so our teen hero has to fly off to make amends. I mean, what?

When the best thing about a film is its excessive CGI and green screen there is something rather wrong. It starts a little like The Hunger Games, reluctant teen becomes hero (in this case, it’s a male rather than a female) but it is a pale shadow of that series. I’ve read that the film is based on a series of books written by Orson Scott Card but I can only hope that most of the best material was lost in the screenplay, because the film does the book/s no favours at all. They ploughed $100 million into this turkey- I can in no way fathom what they saw in the screenplay that merited that kind of attention and outlay. Sure, teen-angst adventures were all the rage post-Harry Potter and Hunger Games but really, this tedious film is really poor and wide of the mark.

And anyone surprised/impressed that Harrison Ford thought the script for Blade Runner 2 was one of the very best he’d read and so good he subsequently signed up to star in it, well, its time to be rather worried. If Ford thought Ender’s Game was worthy of him, then really we need to be very cautious about BR2. I swear he looks half-asleep in much of this. What was he thinking (i.e. how much was his pay packet)? Whatever it was, he returns the favour with one of his worst performances that I have ever seen. I’ve seen better performances by trees, he’s that wooden.

It’s a harrowing film. Avoid.

 

 

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

edge1The cover-art of the Blu-ray (and I presume the DVD, although I haven’t seen it) betrays the problem that this film seems to have had- is it Edge of Tomorrow or Live, Die, Repeat?  When a film’s identity, its very title, seems to have an air of doubt about it, you know the marketing boys are in trouble. Here’s a film that is a very enjoyable action blockbuster with a bit of intelligence and wit about it starring one of the biggest male stars on the planet, with favourable reviews and word-of-mouth, and yet it still somehow fails to live up to box-office expectations. As a product, its fine, so is the problem simply that it wasn’t sold very well?

The success of movies is always something of a crap-shoot. Some films have ‘hit’ all over them and make huge box-office, others have ‘hit’ all over them and sink without trace. The frustrating thing for film-fans is often the injustice of it. Good films fail (John Carter, Blade Runner etc) and bad movies (take your pick, but any Transformers movie is a good start) make obscene amounts of money. There just isn’t any reason to it. Some films capture the public’s attention, others don’t. Maybe the public are a tasteless ignorant horde of brain-dead morons who are suckers for loud spectacle.

Here’s the thing. They are usually very young. Its demographics. Going to the cinema is mostly a young person’s activity. Most people going to the cinema these days are a different generation to the one that grew up with Tom Cruise as a major star. For this generation, the names Sylvester Stallone or Arnold  Swarzenegger or Bruce Willis or, indeed, Tom Cruise, don’t carry the same street-cred or air of celluloid importance as they did (and still do) for, say my own age group (slipping towards age 50) or even  the age group before, now hitting their thirties. Is the problem simply that Tom Cruise’s status is beginning to wane, his name not quite able alone to sell an original IP with its own attendant problems regards marketing? I am always one to bemoan the number of superhero movies and remakes and sequels being made, but the perceived failure of movies like Edge of Tomorrow kind of reinforces the practices of Hollywood, the films that we usually get.

egde2I’m not going to suggest that Edge of Tomorrow is a great film. Its good, but nothing extraordinary. But of all this past summer’s ‘blockbusters’ that I have so far seen, its likely the best, and possibly the most, dare I say it, original (although that last point is with a few caveats, as it eventually seems to descend into a rehash of a Matrix movie by the end).

Its a weird film though. The basic premise is just plain daft. Aliens have invaded Earth and have taken over Europe and its up to the Brits to save the day. Its World War Two and the Normandy invasion all over again. Only in the near future. I admit that whole thing bugged me a bit; if this thing had been a kind of Steampunk alternate World War Two with advanced tech then that would have been fine, albeit too high-brow for the general film-going public (the irony is not lost on me considering how the film’s box-office turned out). As it is, it just feels wrong, the central proposition (even before we get to the time travel stuff) already on shaky ground. It may have worked against the Germans in the 1940s, but how do you keep a huge invasion force secret in the Information Age, particularly against space-faring aliens who can surely see what you are up to across the Channel?  How do us Brits, with our cut-down military and debt-ridden economy even marshal those invasion forces? How come the Yanks don’t just run the show? That said, while the central ideas may have been dubious, the presentation is quite convincing and impressive. The battle scenes are very good indeed, with some excellent action choreography, and it looks very cool- Saving Private Ryan in Exo-skeletons!

I have to admit I enjoyed the proposition that Tom Cruise is a coward more intent on selling this war than actually fighting in it. Reluctant heroes are much more interesting and it gives Cruise something a bit left-field for him. Once the action sets in he’s as capable as ever, but its certainly his quieter moments that I enjoyed the most. Meanwhile, Emily Blunt is something of a revelation. If this film doesn’t serve as some kind of audition for her eventual starring role in a Marvel Studios movie, well, there is no justice. She is just great as an action heroine, which somehow came as quite a surprise. She and Cruise also share some chemistry too. Its great casting.

edge3The funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that it has the structure of a video-game. Its really weird. Cruise re-lives the same day (the same video-game level) and changes his actions to get further and further into that level, each death causing a reset to that same checkpoint… it even looks like a FPS. Its like an alternate Tron or something. In some ways its the most authentic movie based on a video-game ever (except that, far as I know, it isn’t based on any video-game). Damned thing is, you’d think that would sell well. Go figure.

Its certainly a good movie and one I very much enjoyed. When it finished, my first thought was that I’d like to watch it again (rather ironic considering its own repetitive structure), which is not something I often think when watching new films these days.Sure its not perfect, and in truth its box-office wasn’t really all that bad (it was perceived as performing below expectations but it was certainly no Lone Ranger/John Carter failure). I think some longer character beats, and perhaps some examination on the impact reliving all  those events so many times would have on Cruise’s character psychologically…  but maybe that would have been a different movie.

Alien: Isolation

alienisolation4.0Its not often  that I comment on videogames on this blog (have I ever?), but certainly in this case there is an obvious film-related element. I’ve been playing this game since its launch on PS4 and have to say its pretty extraordinary- particularly because I’m such a fan of the original ALIEN. Its also the most intense and scary videogame I have ever played, and I’ve been  playing these things since the heyday of the old Atari VCS. Its so intense infact that I’ve only been able to play it in short spells of an hour or so and with gaps of a few days inbetween. Seriously. The damn thing is freaking me out. Its been a few weeks now and I’m hardly a third of the way through (currently on level 5 in the medical area being stalked by the titular character)- I’m absolutely adoring it but treating it with caution. My nerves are frazzled. I talk about it at work and start feeling myself tensing up. Best videogame based on a movie? Most likely.

Maybe I’m playing it differently to many. Some of the reviews were so negative I regretted my pre-order (ALIEN games have a fairly bad history as videogames, to be frank, the best I can remember dating back to the ZX Spectrum) but thank goodness that I didn’t. Games reviewers be damned, this thing is an experience, indeed,  for a fan of ALIEN, this is such a pinch-me-am-I-dreaming experience its almost bizarre. Its everything I ever hoped an ALIEN-based game could be. The art direction, graphics, sound effects and use of the Jerry Goldsmith score is so perfect, so accomplished, it just takes my breath away. Much of the time if I think I’m free from the Alien hunting me or the attention of the Company Androids menacing the station, I just wonder around taking in the experience, almost in a Virtual Reality way (if ever they get one of those VR headset thingies adapted for this game watch out).

They have even modelled the original Nostromo sets for some DLC- I’ve spent all my time with that just wandering around the mess-room and the bridge (oh, thats where Ripley sits! There’s Ash’s workstation!) and the medical bay, like I’m stepping into the movie. It really is extraordinary. In the words of Philip K Dick, I keep asking ‘How is this possible?’Its like being able to walk into Ron Cobb’s production drawings and paintings, starring at the glass cubicles containing the space suits, the magazines scattered around… its quite an achievement. If they had a mode that dropped the Alien and the other characters in which I could just wander around the station exploring its nooks and crannies, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.

Has Ridley Scott seen this, I wonder?